by Alexandre Paquin
We cannot deny it, it's got dungeons, and it's got dragons. But there is no sense of adventure in this would-be epic done on a small budget (thirty-five million dollars). And what about this oh-so-unimportant little element called a plot?Everyone has heard about the atrocious track record of films based on games, and it would be all too easy, and quite inappropriate, to extend it to include "Dungeons & Dragons" (2000), because the latter is only related to the famous pencil-and-dice game by its title, as the film is not set in a world protected under intellectual property laws by TSR and later Wizards of the Coast, the owners of the game, but in one that came out of the imagination of game fan-turned-director Courtney Solomon and his screenwriters. "Imagination", however, is perhaps the wrong word to use in this context, since the land in which the film takes place is simply a collection of the most blatant clichés all used with more success elsewhere before, glued together without any hint of originality or craftsmanship. The action oscillates back and forth between, and most often mixes, a half-medieval atmosphere which is never totally convincing and a sometimes futuristic world more appropriate to a science fiction film. Every scene is ripped off from such better films as the Indiana Jones trilogy and the four "Star Wars" installments, and, most eyebrow-raising of all, could hardly have been stolen with a higher and more constistent level of mediocrity. Nobody involved in the making of the film seems to care about the complete lack of originality of the subject, and yet, almost paradoxically, nearly everyone seems to be taking the project incredibly seriously without any suggestion of irony, as if all this second (or forty-third)-hand material could be turned into an epic of the genre, which of course must come complete with a "Star Wars"-ish score.
"The Heavy Hand of Fantasy"
What, then, is the story at the centre of this "epic"? Difficult to say, because the plot suffers from a definite lack of continuity. What we do know, however, is that the Empress Savina (Thora Birch) is the young ruler of Izmer, a kingdom divided between an elite of magic users and the rest of the population. The young empress has the noble goal of making everyone equal, but she must face opposition from magic users, led by the evil Profion (Jeremy Irons), who is, of course, determined to sit on the throne of Izmer. The Empress, however, owns a scepter which controls gold dragons, and is as such a most effective protection against Profion's ambitions. This also explains why Profion tries to manipulate the Council of Mages of Izmer into supporting a resolution to remove the scepter from the Empress. The latter predictably refuses, but knows that she will eventually have to relinquish the scepter. When she is informed by an advisor about the existence of the Rod of Savrille, which controls the more powerful red dragons, she decides to retrieve it. However, Profion is also aware of the rod's existence, and must find it before it falls in the Empress's hands.
In the meantime, two incompetent small-time thieves, the aptly named Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin) and his partner, Snails (Marlon Wayans), decide to rob the magic school of Izmer's capital, Sumdall. In doing so, they are caught by a low-level mage named Marina Pretensa (Zoe McLellan). However, when Profion's main henchman, Damodar (Bruce Payne), the chief of the Crimson Brigade, pays a visit to the magic school to retrieve an important scroll which may lead to the rod, Marina and the two thieves escape with the scroll. Shortly afterwards, our trio meets another companion, a red-bearded dwarf named Elwood Gutworthy (Lee Arenberg), and the four will set on retrieving the eye of the dragon, a mysterious red stone necessary to obtain the rod. After doing so, Marina is abducted by forces of evil, but the party meets the empress's tracker, Norda (Kristen Wilson), and soon finds out where Marina has been taken. Snails, in typical dispatch-the-sidekick fashion, is killed by Damodar while attempting to rescue Marina, but the rest of the group escapes, and sets once more on retrieving the rod, while the situation rapidly deteriorates in Izmer. The film moves on to reach a computer graphics imagery-saturated climax, predictably opposing our all-Izmerian hero Ridley to the all-evil Profion, and concludes with one of the most incomprehensible and baffling endings ever seen on film in recent years.
From this summary, it would appear to anyone who has not seen the film that the plot is by no means original, but that at least the story seems to have a rudimentary sense of cohesion. Appearances, in this case, are misleading, because making sense of the plot is mostly achieved by filling in the blanks. The story leaps, or rather limps, from one situation to the next, without paying any attention to incomplete or inconsistent characterizations, or trying to clarify ambiguous elements in the story. What is the exact purpose of the scroll? Why is Ridley, a thief, capable of deciphering it while more experienced mages cannot? How does the party escape from the sewers where they had once found refuge if Damodar has posted troops at every exit? These are just a few of the many questions left unanswered throughout the film, which suggest that the film has been over-edited to death, but who really cares? The film is, after all, mediocre in all departments, ranging from swords and armor obviously made of plastic and the ever-present low-quality computer animations to the atrocious acting by all major cast members, including the prestigious actor among the lot, Jeremy Irons.
"Routine" is one word, "inept" is another, and "Dungeons & Dragons" perfectly demonstrates the distinction between them. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg might be re-using the formula that made Indiana Jones and "Star Wars" household names over and over again until the overuse becomes all too obvious, but their detractors will write about these filmmakers' overriding commercial considerations and lack of originality, not classify them as "incompetent". In comparison "Dungeons & Dragons", in spite of its unquestionably commercial topic, seems to have been made by a person who truly had the project at heart, too much in fact, but who just did not know how to release a quality product. Courtney Solomon spent nearly a decade trying to obtain the film rights from the makers of the game and assembling the necessary funding before filming, far longer than most established contemporary filmmakers would spend on a single project before moving on to other things. But Solomon lacks the professional expertise to make his film enjoyable, and without a strong presence at the helm, the members of the cast go through their parts with complete indifference, apart, perhaps, from Justin Whalin, obviously thrilled to have obtained a starring role and been given an associate producer credit, who is almost successful as Ridley, and Bruce Payne as Damodar, who would have been better had he spoken a just a little faster and without blue lipstick. The rest of the cast is utterly unwatchable.
Marlon Wayans's stereotypically childish and hysterical performance -- shrieking, crying, goofing around, etc --, which demonstrates once and for all that Stepin Fetchit's efforts are not all lost to black actors, plus the fact that we are savagely but thankfully liberated from his presence halfway through the film, must make of "Dungeons & Dragons" an all-time favourite at Ku Klux Klan meetings. Zoe McLellan lacks the charisma and energy to make her part entirely convincing, and Lee Arenberg is only around for a few minutes throughout the film, but is given some of the worst lines of the screenplay, which he delivers with his face completely hidden behind an orange-coloured fake beard. Kristen Wilson is hardly ever on screen, and her role is therefore less than remarkable. Thora Birch as the empress offers the worst performance of the lot, reading each of her lines with all the enthusiasm of a depressed chartered accountant. It is difficult to believe that this fine actress ("Ghost World" and "American Beauty" provide ample evidence of this) is giving the impression of reading all her lines directly from her copy of the screenplay.
And then, there's Jeremy Irons as our stock head villain, Profion. Although we may speculate why such a prestigious actor as Irons agreed to play in "Dungeons & Dragons" (I would suggest money), his awfully over-the-top, Bela Lugosi-esque performance is perhaps only explainable by his realizing how worthless the whole enterprise was. At least, that's what I hope, because there is no other explanation that makes sense of it without inevitably questioning Irons's acting skills.
It is a waste of time to try to rescue Douglas Milsome's cinematography from this wreck of a film. After all, what kind of quality can you expect from the cinematography if there's nothing in the picture worth filming in the first place? Milsome, whose work on "Full Metal Jacket" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" was indeed impressive, tries his best here, but he cannot make the plastic weapons and suits of armor look more realistic, he cannot change the colour and aspect of the protagonists' clothing, and certainly can do nothing for their performances. And most of all, an experienced cinematographer cannot compensate for the lack of a qualified director. If it was Solomon's decision to do a day-for-night scene when there was too much natural light, then there was little Milsome could do except put a blue filter over the whole thing and hope no one would notice. It must be remembered, after all, that a cinematographer is often nothing more than a technical man who follows orders from the director.
Somebody financing or working on the film must have noticed the inexperience and, as it turned out, the incompetence of the director, but such criticism is too often quelled by a fat paycheque, the even distant prospect of beneficial exposure from such a commercial film, and the perceived certainty of escaping the disaster relatively unscathed. Because -- do not get mistaken -- "Dungeons & Dragons" is a disaster of the first order. It takes itself too seriously while looking cheap, and appears too heavy-handed in relation to its story and general topic, but it must be borne in mind that it was directed by someone who would probably fail to understand what "heavy-handed" means. It is worth remembering that Solomon chose the red-and-black pattern for the Crimson Brigade because it reminded him of Nazi Germany. Such symbolism!Courtney Solomon is no Orson Welles. Unlike Welles's first film, "Citizen Kane", "Dungeons & Dragons" will never be included on any film critic's best films list, but Solomon could well become the most famous youngest has-been since Welles, with the difference between the two only measured in talent. Solomon hoped to create a critical and commercial success with this film, and failed both ways, which means that we will be spared the sequel(s) originally intended. Indeed, we learn from Solomon's DVD commentary on the film that he had planned "Dungeons & Dragons" as the first part of a trilogy, with the firm intention of getting a sequel under way as soon as possible. Unlike anything offered to unsuspecting audiences in these 107 minutes of wasted film stock, that's fantasy.
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originally posted: 01/10/02 02:53:53